Over the last 20 years or so various people have asked us why we were walking the coast of England; often asking if it was to raise funds for charity. Well we didn’t do it for charity, we did it for ourselves – but just why and what kept us going for over twenty years is slightly more complex. The Walk was born in a fug of nostalgia and alcohol on December 31st 1992 as we reminisced about our schooldays over dinner at my home. It is probably fair to say that although Brian always had a clear vision as to why, neither of us really answered the question in full until The Walk was over.
Brian explains it thus:
“Thinking back now, I guess it all started for me when I was about 8 - 12 years old, when as a child we went on family holidays (Margate, Gt Yarmouth, Paignton to name a few). We used to typically spend all day on the beach, have dinner, then go for a walk along the prom in either direction. We would walk for a certain time, then stop and retrace our steps. I remember I always wanted to go on - what is around the next headland? - what am I missing in the next bay?"
“This was further developed when I had a family of my own - similar pattern, beach in the day, or other activity, and maybe a stroll in the evening perhaps (Weymouth, Swanage, Scarborough, Bridlington, Whitby to name a few), but was extended to some daytimes, and further distances as the children grew. It was still the same feeling though - I wanted to know what was in the next bay, and what was around the next headland. It was at that time that I began to think - well why not actually do it one day - once the children had grown up - to be free - to keep going and see where I would end up - to have everything I needed with me and stop in a different place each night."
“So that takes us to that eventful evening in 1992/3, when I described that to you. You said ‘what are we waiting for - let's do it then before we are too old’ (or something like that). “
For myself [Roger] it was something different, and my thoughts didn’t really crystallise until the walk was under way.
“A key factor at work for me was that I felt something was missing. I wanted to do something unusual; something big. Problem was I couldn’t articulate this and when I did try to think it through the difficulties seemed too great; was I able to do something ‘big’ – face a physical and mental challenge? How could I accommodate everyday life and family responsibilities, they always got in the way? So the thoughts remained buried away.
“When we were reminiscing about the school walks’ that night a romantic blue touch paper I was barely aware of was found. I suppose that was created in part by the tales of derring-do [real and fictional] that was the staple of kids reading back in the 50’s and early 60’s. Then you mentioned your dream of walking around the coast.
Was this the missing link, the something big and unusual? Let’s face it, at 40-something I was unlikely to be climbing Everest; exploring the Amazon in a dug-out canoe or going on hazardous missions behind enemy lines to rescue damsels in distress or to recover the secret formula that will save the world. A long distance walk around the coast was full of intriguing possibilities. The blue touch paper was firmly alight.”
The first stage in 1993 destroyed a number of preconceptions we both had. The coast, although at sea level, has cliffs one has to climb and once there it is rare to have the luxury of a stroll on gently rolling cliff tops until one reached the next bay. There are valleys and gullies [or denes] to negotiate; and the cliff tops are rarely flat or gently rolling, all too frequently they see-sawed up and down alarmingly. The ground under foot varied enormously from nice short grass to rutted clay or stony paths. Then there was the vegetation that sometimes pulls at the legs and in extreme cases arms and body too. There were places where it seemed the countryside was determined to trip the unwary walker. We encountered all of this in that first year and overcame it all. 1993 demonstrated that it was possible for our two “heroes” to not only walk 40 odd miles in less than a week, but also enjoy themselves. We also experienced a deep sense of satisfaction from the whole episode.
The second stage in 1994 reinforced the conclusions of 1993; it was as though the walk had bedded down in our collective psyche in those first two years. That is when it changed from the walk to The Walk.
From that time on The Walk became a major highlight of each year and occupied us far longer than the one or two weeks actual walking when one considers the planning; making travel arrangements; plotting probable routes; writing up the log and building the web site. At no stage did either of us consider giving up and not completing the circuit of England - it was inconceivable that we would stop.
Brian developed some deep attachments to the walk quite early on.
“I recently said to Hilary that The Walk was the only thing that kept me sane. Her reply was ‘It didn't do a great job did it’. Well maybe it wasn't 100% successful, but in truth it is the only holiday/activity that has ever allowed me to totally lose myself, and to get away from my everyday thoughts of work, or domestic problems. I don't know why really - but with very few exceptions (and they were thanks to the invention of the mobile phone and text messages which have been invented/developed since we started our walk (incredible to realise that isn't it?)) - I have been totally relaxed and de-stressed while on our walking trips.
“Every year for the 23 years (with the two exception years) my whole year has been built around ‘the walk’. It has had a life of its own. Each year has started with looking forward to that year's walk for months, gradually building up the expectations, buying new clothing, maps, etc, researching the likely route. Then came the walk itself which was over so quickly (too quickly some years), and followed by the reminiscing, and practical creation of the web site, before the cycle started again.
“I will miss the coast walk - it's not just the walking, adventure and freedom - I guess that may be repeated in any new project (I hope so anyway) - but I will miss the variety, wildness and beauty of the coast and the coastal towns and villages, and seeing all the people enjoying their various holidays. I don't think any other project will be the same, and will provide a compromise at best. Unfortunately, however, we have to be realistic. We are not getting any younger. Bits are wearing out (and I don't mean the boots and trousers ) and we will have to compromise. I cannot envisage a year without a long distance, multi-day walking project of some sort - it has a job to do in keeping me sane!”
I share these sentiments although I do admit to feeling The Walk had taken over at one stage.
“I’m not too sure that The Walk kept me sane as, before we even started, some folks said it was too late for that! When we were doing The Walk though it was possible to relax and get into a totally different time frame and pace of life. A place 6 or 7 miles away would be reached in three hours or so on The Walk – at home 10-15 minutes in the car. This change of pace and the fact that we were in total control of our destiny [well most of the time] led to a sense of freedom rarely experienced in the world of work.
“Also there was the landscape we walked through. The sheer variety of the coastal scenery is amazing, and something that surprised me. The popular image is one of sun on white cliffs and golden sands, but the reality is very different and made the whole thing interesting and exciting throughout. Sure we had a fair amount of road walking but when away from the roads the peace and quiet was so refreshing it was almost worth an hour’s kip. Occasionally even the road walking could be interesting eg from Beal to Belsay in 2014.
“Some of my fondest memories were the times, usually at or after lunch time, when we would reach a particularly sunny and peaceful place and take a break. All these places had things in common; a good stretch of grass to lie on, sheltered from any breeze; sun shining; occasionally bird song [but not essential]. We would both stretch out on the grass with our sunhats covering our faces and get totally lost in the place and the moment. I have rarely attained such levels of calm and tranquillity away from The Walk.
“It must be recognised that The Walk could be boring at times as we spent what felt like hour after hour trekking through some flat featureless landscape or we were confined by tall hedges on a road or lane or walking through some urban landscapes. There were times when it was painful and fatigue was a major factor on many days. We soon worked out there was only one way to handle all this. Forget the big picture, concentrate on the issue in front of you and collect the small victories over hills; blisters; gullies and denes; the physical and mental tiredness. Having your mate next to you made these times so much more bearable.
“Around the middle of The Walk, when we were heading for Dorset and beyond, I did suffer a mini crisis of confidence and say to myself ‘the damn walk is looming, I suppose I’d better start planning for it’. The enthusiasm had dropped right away, mainly because I felt it was being done as a chore, something to be done to finish the job. The fun was missing. The Walk was getting bigger than us. Fortunately for Brian and I that year we walked through some stunning country which reminded me why we were doing The Walk, the journey was more important than the destination, and we were back in control.
“Along the way we have met interesting, friendly and helpful people, some with tales to tell, others just willing to help. Some of these people may have felt they were just doing their job, but the impact they made on two often weary walkers was much more than ‘just doing the job’. We have passed through interesting places; beautiful countryside and some boring landscapes, usually in towns. There has been a deep satisfaction in getting through the days, overcoming the problems encountered and eventually getting back to where we started all those years ago. I have now done something big and it was unusual, faced a physical and mental challenge and attained my goals – I wouldn’t have missed it for a pot of gold”.
A few weeks after completing the walk we met up to reminisce about 2015 and The Walk in general. I was particularly interested to see how our memories matched, did we share the same highlights and low points. To this end I came armed with a list of bullet points covering a sheet of A4. Brian asserted he could barely remember what we had done in 2015 let alone remember things from 21 different walks spread out over the last 23 years.
One thing we definitely agreed on was that we would have changed little. We established some ground rules right from the start, and they served us well throughout:
There were two other big decisions that moulded the walk. The first was that we agreed we would be free to stop and start where and when we wanted. The practical outcome of this was that for the bulk of the walk we had no idea when we set off each morning where we would be spending that night. As the walk progressed and we started each leg further from home we tweaked the policy, frequently booking the first night, sometimes the second as well. Not knowing where we would be staying just reinforced the freedom we felt and of course added to the adventure.
We did have near misses on the accommodation front, although only two where we may have had to use bus shelters or seek out barns – Bognor  and Hemsby . On more than one occasion though we arrived at our destination to find no rooms available in town and had resort to phoning around and using public transport to go back or forwards.
The second decision was that pragmatism rules. Although we were walking the coast it didn’t mean we had to be within sight or sound of the sea all the way – in fact experience soon suggested that would be impossible anyway by the time one considers docks; industrial sites; MOD land etc. This meant that as the situation demanded we would deviate from a coastal path to seek out digs for the night or to avoid a potentially hazardous stretch. Other concessions were made when either of us suffered injury or illness [eg 1999; 2008].
Another pragmatic decision made early in the piece was how to handle big rivers and sundry promontories etc. Spurn Head and the Humber set the precedent for the rest of the walk. We deemed it was not necessary to walk round every bit of coast – especially where it could take a long time for little gain such as Spurn Head. If it made sense to walk to the lowest crossing point of a river then so be it, but public transport was fine if it would take all day to walk around an estuary. If one year’s walk finished at a river it was OK to start the next year on the other side without walking around it.
One area that we missed out caused much discussion at the time and still does. In 1999 the question was “how does one get from Clacton to Southend?” For most rational people the answer is easy – train; bus or car [unless one has a boat or fancies using a bike or tandem or unicycle]. For a walker the answer is more difficult. In 1999 we made the decision to get the train simply because, depending upon the precise route taken, it could take a week or more to walk around the Blackwater; Crouch and assorted other rivers; streams and creeks. We have revisited this problem several times, even considering it as a post Walk project, but so far we have come to the same conclusion – the train should take the strain.
Choosing our best bits was much more difficult. We agreed that the people we have met over the years enlivened the walk no end. Within minutes of starting the review we had a list of more than a dozen people and the more we talked the more were added to the list. Each memory sparked another. The same thing occurred when we tried to pick the best or most scenic places – one place would spark a memory of another and so the list grew longer and picking the best 3 or 4 became almost impossible let alone one stand out location. Things were not improved by looking back at the photographs taken – the more images the more memories. Brian, who said he couldn’t remember anything, was the main contributor to the list that had expanded to 3 sides of A4 before we called a halt. We decided to try and pick one location each that was the most vivid memory and summarised what the walk was all about.
Going down to the beach near Saltfleet  is high on Brian’s list. The beach here is one of the many that grace the East Coast from the Wash to the Scottish border. This beach, like many of the others, is a long broad swathe of sand that gently slopes to the sea from the sand dunes that separate it from the countryside beyond. “The beach was in pristine condition under the summer sky with no footprints or litter to be seen. We were the only people there and there was a tremendous sense of peace as the sea gently broke on the sand”.
For me the one location that summed up the walk was sitting atop Golden Cap . Golden Cap is a high, flat-topped hill of deep orange sandstone on the cliffs between Bridport and Charmouth in Dorset and at 627ft (191m) is the highest point on the south coast of Great Britain. We didn’t know any of this when we made our way to the summit. “It was a bit of a slog for us to get to the top, and near the summit, as we paused yet again to catch our breath, we were passed by a platoon of Marines jogging up! From the summit there were stunning views along the coast and inland. The sun was shining, blue sky with white fluffy clouds; the air clear with only the gentlest of breezes to worry about. Golden Cap on that day just seemed to encapsulate The Walk because you had to walk there [unless parachuted in], and the reward was worth the effort involved”
A real bonus at both of these locations was that the weather was glorious with clear air and sunshine. Would we have felt the same about them if they were shrouded in haar or if the rain was driven by strong winds, probably not, but the weather was kind and we saw both places at their very best.
One thing we could definitely agree on is that the sheer diversity of the coast made it fascinating and was a major motivator in sustaining the effort over 20 years. The coastline isn’t all tall cliffs and sandy bays. For mile after mile the coast is a beach backed by a relatively low shingle bank or the sometimes towering sand dunes. White chalk cliffs are not that common either. The majority of cliffs are made from other rocks or clay [and the unique layer cake cliffs at Hunstanton must be mentioned]. Man has added to this diversity by adding sea defences and promenades. Beaches are not all sandy, many are shingle or pebbles with mud and rock platforms making their contribution as well.
In addition to the people we met and the places walked through The Walk was about the little incidents that happened nearly every day. Some were amusing, often involving the people we met and choosing one is too difficult. Some were a bit scary – walking close to the cliff edge between Milford & Barton in a gale . And as Brian says “The wind was so severe that it nearly blew us over a couple of times”; or the crossing from Yarmouth to Lymington in 2001 – this could also be classed as very funny! Then there were the embarrassing moments such as the time Roger fell over in the first 10 minutes of the walk leaving Sandwich station ; or the time in 2002 when we both suffered a wardrobe malfunction in Lyme Regis when our trousers split.
By and large the weather has been kind to us over the years. It has been blisteringly hot and somewhat chilly; and when you throw in rain and the occasional misty / foggy day we have experienced typical British Summers. Rain though has caused us real problems at times. We were subject to violent heavy rain in 2002 approaching Abbotsbury and again in 2009 when we were at the summit of Great Hangman. On both occasions the rain was so heavy and sustained that our waterproof clothing was overwhelmed and all the contents of our rucksacks were soaked despite the protective layers. Great Hangman was also potentially very dangerous as we had to walk through a thunderstorm and negotiate a tricky steep descent into a valley before we could get off the hill.
Bad weather caused us to abandon The Walk in 2011 and 2012 because of potential safety issues. In both years rain was the culprit, but not the violent rainstorms of Abbotsbury and Great Hangman rather the cumulative effect of heavy rain that had fallen in the weeks prior to the walk. This had left the ground waterlogged and flooded. The daily rain we then encountered just kept everywhere nicely topped up. In both years the Met Office also issued severe weather warnings for more rain and high winds for the Cumbria region. With a waterlogged and flooded countryside with more heavy rain and high winds expected the only prudent, but disappointing, course was to abandon those years’ walk.
Others have walked round England before us and others will certainly do it after us. We did it our way following our rules and we gained a lot from the experience. We offer little advice to those thinking of following in our footsteps other than to remember not to over think it and JFDI **. In the planning make sure Objective 1 is to enjoy it; Objective 2 is to enjoy it; and Objective 3 is to enjoy it – all of it.
** JFDI – often translated as Just F*****g Do It
And a host of other places all around the coast.
We encountered some good pubs – the best probably the Blue Ball at Countisbury (near Lynton) ; O’Gradys (Redcar) ; Camber Castle (Camber). Although these stick out [we’ve remembered the names!] there were countless others where we were made welcome
Sad to say each year’s walk had its uninteresting sections, whether it was walking between high hedgerows that restricted the view; flat featureless landscapes or alongside busy roads. Generally speaking though there was enough variety in the landscape for things to change before we became totally disenchanted. That said there were three locations that really did drag our spirits down. All involved lengthy walks alongside busy roads with poor views to left and right. They were:
Generally speaking fate treated us kindly during The Walk, but there were several occasions when things went a bit belly up.
Crossing from Felixstowe to Harwich  the skipper on the ferry told everyone to sit down as we were in for a rough crossing. The sea looked pretty calm but when we got out into the channel the ferry started bucking like a deranged bronco as we encountered the remnant of the wake from a container ship that had left 10 minutes earlier.
The last night of The Walk saw them push the boat out a little and search out a good meal with a bottle [or two or three] of wine as a reward and to celebrate that year’s efforts. Several stood out and have almost reached legendary status for Brian and Roger. There was only one stand out poor one – Folkestone. That was the day the car battery was flat making them late looking for digs, which had a marked effect on their state of mind and made them late for the pre-prandial drinks and only just getting the food order in before the kitchen closed.
Not so good
Walking through the countryside can be dangerous if due care isn’t taken. Paths in many locations over the years required supreme vigilance to prevent trips and falls. Many were steep with loose uneven surfaces and many were narrow and close to the cliff edge. In many places steps have been cut into hillsides to help the walker, but over time these become worn and can present trip hazards.
Even relatively flat landscapes pose their problems particularly where the foot traffic has led to a badly worn and rutted path. Rain can turn some stretches into ice rinks. That said all that is needed is a little bit of care to have an enjoyable walk.